On July 4 we will celebrate the birth of our great nation when its charter document, the Declaration of Independence, was enacted. Independence Day is a very significant one for our country and one that is extremely important today when so many threats to true freedom are present in our culture, society and world. The principle of true liberty upon which our country is founded is one that is greatly needed in so many areas of the world. It is also one that our nation cannot overlook when this principle is often times misunderstood today in the United States. Liberty is not the ability to do whatever one wants to do, but the ability to do what is right and just. License and liberty are opposed to each other.
In preparation for the celebration of Independence Day, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has encouraged Catholics, other Christians and all people of goodwill to set aside two weeks to reflect upon the importance of religious freedom, the reason for the founding of our great nation. These two weeks are titled the Fortnight for Freedom and run from June 21 (the Vigil of the Feast of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher) to July 4 itself. The opening Mass for the Fortnight for Freedom is celebrated at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, Maryland, and the closing Mass takes place at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC.
The theme for this year's Fortnight for Freedom is Witnesses to Freedom. The Conference of Bishops centered on fourteen men and women for reflection each day. They are the: Little Sisters of the Poor, St. John Fisher and St. Thomas more, St. John the Baptist, Venerable Henriette Delille, Blessed Oscar Romero, the Martyrs of Compiègne, Father John Bapst, SJ, Saints Peter and Paul, Saints Felicity and Perpetua, Brother Miguel Pro, St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Edith Stein, and St. Kateri Tekakwitha. The witness of these women and men truly are examples in regard to true liberty today. They love their country and their church and they do not see a dichotomy in this, even in the face of being persecuted.
In his visit to the United States last September, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, praised the history of our nation as one which promoted true religious liberty. He encouraged us to continue this promotion today especially in the face of many threats. Pope Francis delivered an historic address to Congress in which he specifically touched upon the matter of religious liberty. He referred to four Americans, for whom significant anniversaries were commemorated during the year, who well represented the American spirit and who said a great deal about religious liberty. One of them was President Abraham Lincoln on the occasion of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his assassination.
Pope Francis made specific reference to the renowned words which Abraham Lincoln spoke in his Gettysburg address. It was during the month of November that Abraham Lincoln took a journey from Washington, DC, to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to participate in a dedication ceremony for a National Cemetery at the site of a Civil War battlefield. He traveled by an indirect route taking two trains and six hours to arrive. At Gettysburg, on November 19, 1863, Lincoln gave one of the most famous but briefest speeches in our nation's history. Within the passing of two minutes, Lincoln left a lasting impression which has endured to this day. The Gettysburg Address reminds us of our purpose in this life and what the meaning of liberty is all about, especially when men and women have given their lives to protect it.
Abraham Lincoln and the words of his Gettysburg Address are obviously an inspiration to Pope Francis. He referred to Lincoln as the "guardian of liberty, who labored tirelessly that 'this nation, under God might have a new birth of freedom.’” In so many ways, we must realize, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, that our great nation is indeed "under God" and in need of "a new birth of freedom." Only by following the exhortation of President Lincoln will we realize our greatness in liberty.
As we celebrate Independence Day, we do so in a year which shortly will face a major election influencing in a fundamental manner the leadership of our country. We have read about and have heard a great deal about this upcoming election which raises many questions in our minds especially in regard to where our nation is today. True liberty is fundamental to who we are as the United States. We came into existence in a search for religious liberty and the Declaration of Independence boldly stated on July 4, 1776, that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." The Declaration instituted a new government because the government of Great Britain no longer respected these fundamental principles. The Declaration put a great deal of emphasis on "the governed" and the "right of the people" emphasizing that any form of government cannot be destructive of rights.
As the governed, we should not hesitate to exercise our right to make known to the leadership of our country, and to those who wish to participate in that leadership, who we are and what we are all about. Government is about leading in regard to fundamental natural and moral values which cannot change and for which there is no substitution. Government is not about being politically correct and, unfortunately, in our nation today political correctness is governing more than those who wish to govern. Our faith in God and our faith in the natural virtues which flow from our belief cannot be undermined. When they are, we experience the confusion that is before us today. It is for us as the governed to live what we believe and to realize that by doing so we make a difference. Abraham Lincoln gave praise to those who gave their lives that all people of every background of our nation might live in liberty. He saw the danger of our founding principles threatened and expressed that it is "for us, the living," to ensure "that this government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth." We need to seek leaders, like Abraham Lincoln, who truly are witnesses to true liberty and govern not by political correctness but in the liberty of truth.
We are all witnesses to liberty when we live our faith and do our share in encouraging our nation to be what it should and in seeking the true liberty of all. May this Fortnight for Freedom encourage us in this regard and be a source of renewed dedication to our nation.
Happy Independence Day!
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
June 24, 2016